Make your own Watercolor Swatches!

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You just bought a nice palette of watercolors. What’s the first thing you should paint? A watercolor swatch chart! Creating swatches of the colors you have will help you more easily choose the best colors for painting and mixing.

It can be hard to tell what the paint will look like on the paper from looking at the pans of color. They’re often much darker because the pigment is concentrated in the pans or tubes (some more than others). Also, there may be a color chart on the box, but those are not always accurate. So it’s a great idea to make your own!

White Nights watercolor chart
White Nights watercolor swatch paper that came with the paints. I colored the grid in myself, and it was the first one I ever did, so it’s not perfect, but helps me to know exactly what color is in each pan.

When I purchased my set of White Nights watercolor pans, it came in a nice plastic case that included fold out trays. I love having the palette connected too-makes it easier for travel and plein-air painting!

AND…it also came with this nice paper, gridded out to make my own watercolor swatches! Which I did as you can see in the picture. I thought…how cool, a dedicated place for me to put samples of each color, AND it fits in the box! Yay, easy to always have with you!

So, why not make my own for the rest of the watercolors I own? And ones that will fit in the cases. You can easily make your own too!

Making Watercolor Swatches that fit in the box

For this project you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paper
  • Watercolor paints
  • Container of water
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Scissors or paper cutter
  • Paper towel

First, take measurements of the inside of your watercolor paint box where you’ll want to fit the swatch paper. I’ve put the following measurements I used for the ones I created here:

Measure the paper out with a ruler, and mark the dimensions with a pencil, and cut it to the appropriate size. Try it out in the box and make sure it fits!

To make a simple color chart, you’ll be taking a sample of every color in your palette. This will show you what the actual color looks like on paper, so you have a better idea. As I mentioned they can look really dark in the pans or tubes, plus it’s also important to see what it looks like diluted down with water.

Watercolor Tubes

What I like to do for tubes is to squeeze out just a little bit straight from the tube onto the paper. As you can see in the picture below, I basically just dabbed it at the top of the paper. That shows you what the paint will look like in full concentration, when you want to make it as dark as you can on the paper.

Daniel Smith watercolor tubes with my home made watercolor swatches
The paper I had cut for the Daniel Smith paint boxes was small, so I decided to just make thin rectangular lines of the paint, more diluted towards the bottom.

Then with a brush, I like to use a small flat brush for doing this, you dip it into some water and shake the excess off, and you can dab it on a paper towel a little too.

Next, carefully drag some of the paint with your brush downwards to make the thin strip of paint. You only need a tiny bit of paint, so don’t stick your whole brush in the spot you dabbed up top! A little goes a long way with watercolors.

Add more water as necessary to created a diluted effect, where it’s lighter on the bottom. If you put too much water, you can absorb some with a paper towel, or even try to pick it up with your brush.

Do this for all the colors you have! 🙂

Watercolor Pans

You’ll wet your brush first, then put some of that water onto the pan with the brush, to get the paint wet and usable. If your pan isn’t clean, run the brush over it a few times with water, cleaning off the brush as you go. You can also use a paper towel with water to wipe any dirty paint off. You want the color on the swatch to be as pure as possible.

watercolor paint examples with a flat brush
Top of the swatch is darker and more concentrated, while the bottom is diluted with water to show what the paint looks like lighter on the paper.

Then, again with a flat brush, get a good amount of paint on your brush. Place it on the paper and try to create a square or rectangle. Make one side of it dark, with a full amount of paint.

Rinse your brush in water to get rid of the excess paint, and dilute the other side of the rectangle with just a little bit of the paint. Try to create a gradient of dark to light by blending both sides together.

Sennelier watercolor paint and swatches
These are the swatches I made for my tray of Sennelier paints. They actually came with a swatch chart, which was nice, and actually quite accurate! I still went ahead and made my own though just to see what they’d look like on paper.

Don’t worry if it’s not perfect! Mine certainly aren’t. All that’s important is that you’ve created a watercolor swatch that gives you a good example of the paint color in full concentration, going down in dilution as you add more water and less paint.

Watercolor Pencils

Lastly, I decided to make a swatch chart for my set of watercolor pencils too. I have the Prismacolor set of 36 pencils that come in a nice tin box, and a chart would fit in there very nicely!

For this chart, all you need to do is start by making a thin rectangle with the full color on top. Then taking some water on a flat brush and blending it downwards.

adding water to watercolor pencils to make a swatch
Just add a little water and you can easily make a gradient of diluted color for water colored pencils!
Prismacolor watercolor pencil set with homemade swatch chart
My finished chart of 36 colors, fits perfect in the box!

Final Details

Make sure you label all your colors! I just used a pencil, or you can use a super fine pen too.

Also, with some pan palettes you’ll want to protect the swatch paper from the actual paint pans or any you have left in your palette rubbing off. I just put a piece of wax or parchment paper in there, and that helps protect it.

If the paint pans are wet they may stick to the wax paper, so just make sure they’re dry before you close the lid. It’s no big deal if they stick though, so don’t worry if it happens.

Winsor Newton Cotman homemade color chart with wax paper overlay to protect paints
I put a piece of parchment paper over the pans to protect the swatch paper I just made. This is the Winsor Newton Cotman color pans.

That’s it. I hope this helps you make your own swatch chart!

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below, or if you’ve come up with your own creative way to make swatches, don’t hesitate to share! 🙂

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Make your own Watercolor Swatches!

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